As Hollywood devises clever ways to work around filming during the coronavirus pandemic, one show currently in production is tackling the subject head on. When ABC’s The Conners returns on October 21, expect it to deal, like mother-ship Roseanne did in its initial run, with real social issues currently facing so many Americans. In its past two seasons the Conner family has remained united amidst such adversities as the loss of Roseanne, single parenthood, immigration, financial crises and family pressures, all with a keen insight into how most families live. And plenty of laughs, too.
Given the current state of global affairs, taking on the pandemic and focusing on a family quarantining together seemed natural. “The Conners were built for disaster,” said series executive producer Bruce Helford earlier this week during a virtual panel with television journalists to promote the show’s upcoming third season. “We've been following their lives and trials through all the things that have been going on since the ‘80s.” It’s natural, he added, that the show would address life during the pandemic.
“I know there are a lot of shows that probably aren't going to be reflecting what’s going on,” Helford continued. “But we felt that it was an obligation to our viewers to stay relevant and show them what it's like for a family that knows how to get through hard times. But [the pandemic] has thrown a curve like never before.”
The Conner family survived their biggest curve ball when the reboot of Roseanne was canceled in 2018 after a short run -- ended by the unceremonious firing of series star Roseanne Barr following some racially insensitive comments she made on Twitter. They rose from the ashes and persevered when the show was retooled as The Conners.
As art imitates life today, both on- and off-screen everyone in the cast is dealing with the pandemic as best they can. “Obviously, we have rigid protocols on the stage,” Helford explained when talking about the show continuing production. “Those are maintained throughout. The way we're reflecting life is pretty close to the exact thing. The only thing that’s different, and it really isn't different, is the family doesn't wear masks or social distance amongst themselves because they're quarantining together.
“Darlene's son Mark (Ames McNamara) is taking peoples' temperatures before they come in and when they go out of the house,” he continued. “He's making sure everybody is washing their hands and doing the proper things. At the characters’ workplaces, we’re following the rules that we follow here -- [maintain] social distance, wear your masks and wash your hands. We're keeping it pretty close to what everybody is doing. We have zones where you have to be dressed in a certain way and wear a certain amount of PPE. We test before you come into the stage. We've never had to be in the business of keeping everybody healthy before, but we take it damn seriously.”
Despite all the protocols and care-taking the show will not be filmed before a live studio audience as it usually is. “We talked about it and we feel that the risks aren't worth the benefits,” explained series star and executive producer Sara Gilbert. “Even if we're testing people, we're just dealing with safety issues.”
Most Americans who are fortunate enough to still be working will attest that having a job as a distraction while isolating has been a saving grace, and The Conners cast is no exception. “Everyone's been quarantining in their own way and going through their own emotional and psychological battles during this time,” shared Lecy Goranson. “I’ve been totally by myself [because] I live part of the year back East, then work here. My plans to go back East fell through, so I've been here [alone]. Being able to have a focus and see people that I love, many I've known for 30 years, and be able to contribute to society in a way [via] our show, I feel very, very, blessed. My thoughts are with those people still at home working alone, who miss their colleagues. I hope that you too can see your colleagues and feel the togetherness I feel, albeit six feet apart.”
“I felt nervous on the first day back,” added co-star Laurie Metcalf. “But when I saw all the safety precautions and talked with fellow cast and crew [members] about how seriously we all were and committed to keeping the set extremely safe, I felt much more comfortable. The weirdest part for me when we finally did tape a scene [was] dropping my mask. That felt very naked.”
Michael Fishman’s return to work was bitter-sweet. “As a parent and somebody who coaches kids, being able to come to this safe place [was special],” he said. “These are people that I've counted on for most of my life.” His thoughts are with “kids at home who can't have that normal community feel” and parents who “have a kid at home doing school. It's so hard to leave during the day and see the isolation that is occurring. There is a psychological toll and I think what we're showing is the strength and the ability to depend on each other.
“The way this family comes together onscreen will hopefully show how families are coming together at home,” he added. “You love your family, and by now they're driving you absolutely insane, so what you have to do is find small breaks, ways to take a break and ways to connect with people and focus.”
Pictured at top, clockwise from top left, are Lecy Goranson, Michael Fishman, Sara Gilbert, John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf.
The Connersreturns to ABC on October 21.
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